White House Chief of Staff John F. Kelly with President Trump at the White House in February. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

Post fact checker Glenn Kessler has an extraordinary new piece that debuts a new category to describe political lies: the “Bottomless Pinocchio.”

This new category denotes a type of political lying that, by all appearances, didn’t exist in quite the same form before President Trump came along. I’ll let Kessler explain:

The president keeps going long after the facts are clear, in what appears to be a deliberate effort to replace the truth with his own, far more favorable, version of it. He is not merely making gaffes or misstating things, he is purposely injecting false information into the national conversation.

Here’s where the “Bottomless Pinocchio” comes in:

That dubious distinction will be awarded to politicians who repeat a false claim so many times that they are, in effect, engaging in campaigns of disinformation.

The bar for the Bottomless Pinocchio is high: The claims must have received three or four Pinocchios from The Fact Checker, and they must have been repeated at least 20 times. Twenty is a sufficiently robust number that there can be no question the politician is aware that his or her facts are wrong. . . .

The Fact Checker has not identified statements from any other current elected official who meets the standard other than Trump.

The key point here is that Trump is not engaged in conventional lying. He’s engaged in spreading disinformation. The president has lied dozens and dozens of times about how much the United States pays into NATO as well as about the investigation being conducted by special counsel Robert S. Mueller III; he has falsely claimed dozens of times apiece that Democrats are the ones who colluded with Russia (a particularly virulent species of up-is-downism); that a border wall will stop the flow of drugs; that our immigration laws are very permissive; and that we have “lost” billions of dollars to trade deficits. A full list of the most oft-told lies is here.

How do we make sense of this level of lying? Well, I tried to do just that in my new book, in a chapter called “Disinformation Nation,” and Kessler has now given me an excuse to share some of it with you, which I will do, since I have already done the work of banging out these paragraphs. Following political theorists such as Jacob Levy, who insists that we must look at Trump through the lens of great analysts of totalitarian disinformation such as Hannah Arendt and George Orwell, I suggest that the president wields disinformation as an assertion of power:

Trump isn’t trying to persuade anyone to believe his lies as much as he’s trying to render factual reality irrelevant — thus reducing the pursuit of agreement on it to just another part of the media circus in which he thrives. . . .

There is a reason Trump regularly tells lies that are very easy to debunk: The whole point of them is to assert the power to say what the truth is, even when — or especially when — easily verifiable facts, ones that are right in front of our noses, dictate the contrary. The brazenness and shamelessness of his lying is not just a by-product of an effort to mislead voters that Trump is merely taking to new levels. Rather, the brazenness and shamelessness of the lying is central to his broader project of declaring for himself the power to say what reality is.

There’s been a fairly robust debate over whether we should call out Trump’s lies as just that — as lies. I argue that we should, but for a specific big-picture reason:

Some editors have offered the tortured argument that they should refrain from using the word lie because it suggests knowledge of Trump’s intent to mislead, which cannot be conclusively established. But this rigs the game in Trump’s favor: One cannot ever conclusively prove whether Trump is intentionally lying, as opposed to just delusional or hopelessly uninformed. 

Yet if Trump repeats a falsehood over and over after it has been debunked, it is obviously deliberate deception; if news organizations refrain from calling this out as such, they are failing to accurately describe what is right there in plain sight. This misleads readers and viewers not just in each particular case. Importantly, it also misleads them more broadly about the truly sinister and deliberate nature of Trump’s ongoing and concerted campaign to obliterate the possibility of shared agreement on facts and on the news media’s legitimate institutional role in keeping voters informed. The resulting standard for describing Trump does not reckon seriously with the scale of the challenge to the truth he poses, and, by portraying his ongoing campaign of flood-the-zone lying as conventional dishonesty or mere incompetence, paints a profoundly misleading picture of the realities of the current moment.

Is the media adapting? Following media scholars such as Jay Rosen and Michael Schudson, I agree that this is one of the central questions of the moment — one with extremely high stakes — but also that we’ve been in situations like this before:

American journalism has confronted other such moments before. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the profession was tested in then-new ways by a confluence of cultural and political changes, including the growth of the federal government and mass media; the increasing transparency of Congress via innovations such as the Freedom of Information Act; and the massive official deception around the Watergate scandal and the Vietnam War. As media scholar Michael Schudson recounts, journalists and the news media adapted by becoming more probing and analytical and by asserting themselves more aggressively toward powerful figures, changes that brought a “new skepticism and critical instinct to journalism,” which enabled the profession of journalism to evolve along with changes in American society and political culture. We may be in the midst of another such transition.

This is why Kessler’s new taxonomy of Trumpian disinformation is important — it reflects a recognition that a new kind of media response to it is necessary. As I also argue in the book, I think in many ways we’re seeing just this — a new kind of media response, as evidenced by things ranging from much more aggressive cable chyrons calling out Trump’s falsehoods to Daniel Dale’s creative use of Twitter threads to debunk Trump’s lies in real time. Whether all of it will prove enough or sufficient, only time will tell.